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PM posts ad for TV spokesperson - and Cummings 'throat slit' gesture is clue of wider agenda

1 month ago 8

To some it must sound like the job opportunity of a lifetime. To others, a poisoned chalice.

The memoirs of Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's legendary press spokesman, were called "Kill The Messenger".

And that fate surely awaits the person chosen for this new post.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a press conference on the ongoing situation with the coronavirus pandemic with chief medical officer Chris Whitty and Chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance.

Image: The PM answered questions from the media himself during the government's coronavirus briefings

Boris Johnson is advertising for a spokesperson to front new televised White House-style press briefings, a move already denounced by the Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

"This is a unique opportunity to work at the centre of government, and communicate with the nation on behalf of the prime minister," says the job ad.

"Salary: To be determined based on experience."

The pay is certain, however, to be £100,000+, considerably more than the £82,000 paid to backbench MPs. Probably not enough to tempt big media stars, though.

"The successful candidate will become a trusted political adviser to the prime minister and member of the senior team at Downing Street, reporting into the prime minister's director of communications," the ad continues.

"You will represent the government and the prime minister to an audience of millions on a daily basis, across the main broadcast channels and social media, and have the chance to influence and shape public opinion.

"You will speak directly to the public on the issues they care most about, explaining the government's position, reassuring people that we are taking action on their priorities and driving positive changes."

The idea stems from the daily coronavirus news conferences which made household names out of previously little known medics and scientists, including Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance and Jonathan Van-Tam.

The new Number 10 mouthpiece will be more than a household name, however. He or she is certain to become a controversial and lampooned figure.

Think of Donald Trump's former spokesman, the much-ridiculed Sean Spicer.

Sean Spicer repeated the claims on behalf of the White House

Image: Sean Spicer quit as White House press secretary in 2017

Those with long memories will also recall Ian MacDonald, a mild-mannered mandarin from the Ministry of Defence who became an unlikely TV star with his lugubrious, deadpan style during the Falklands War in 1982.

There have been controversial Number 10 spokesmen before: Sir Bernard, Harold Wilson's Joe Haines and Tony Blair's spin doctor Alastair Campbell. But none of them ever gave televised briefings or news conferences.

This year's coronavirus briefings attracted big TV audiences and were obviously judged a success by Downing Street.

At first, journalists were inside Number 10, then on screen, with questions from the public as well.

beth and boris johnson

Image: Sky's political editor Beth Rigby asks a question at the government's coronavirus briefings

But there's also a wider Downing Street agenda here.

Number 10 wants to smash the so-called "Lobby system", favoured by Sir Bernard back in Mrs T's day in the 1980s, and seize control of the daily briefings.

At the Downing Street Christmas party for political journalists - yes, really - the prime minister's controversial adviser Dominic Cummings was asked what he wanted to do to the Lobby.

His reply was to say nothing but very theatrically move his index finger from left to right in front of his neck. The message: he wanted to slit the Lobby's throat.

Chief advisor to the Prime Minister Dominic Cummings listens to Boris Johnson as he gives a press conference on the ongoing COVID-19 situation with chief medical officer Chris Whitty and Chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance, in London on March 16, 2020. (Photo by Richard Pohle / POOL / AFP) (Photo by RICHARD POHLE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Image: Dominic Cummings suggested he looked unfavourably on 'the Lobby'

‍In Sir Bernard's day, the Lobby was all very masonic. Terms like "blue mantle" and "red leader" referred to government spokesmen and the leader of the opposition and there were no on-the-record quotes.

These days it's on the record, but still off camera. And until coronavirus, the second of the two daily briefings, in the afternoon, was chaired by a journalist, the "Lobby chairman".

At present, the prime minister's official spokesman, currently former Daily Mail political editor James Slack, briefs "the lobby", a group of accredited political journalists from newspapers, broadcasting and websites.

The Speaker's concern is that daily televised broadcasts from Number 10 risk sidelining parliament. He says the House of Commons is where MPs and the public should find out what's happening.

"Statements should be made to the House first," Sir Lindsay said in an interview this week.

"Once you've made that statement, by all means go and have a press conference. But do it after, not before."

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But the signs are that the Speaker's concerns will be ignored and the new TV briefings will become box office. That's certainly what Mr Johnson and his inner circle appear to be hoping.

"The demands of the post are high," the job ad goes on.

"And it will appeal to an experienced and confident media operator who would enjoy working on camera and with senior ministers, political advisers, officials and journalists; who would relish the challenge and pace of televised briefing; and who has a strong grasp of foreign and domestic policy issues."

In other words, a seasoned broadcaster and - no doubt - a true believer in the cause of Brexit. It's significant that the person chosen will be a special adviser, in other words a political appointment, not a civil servant.

Whoever lands the post will report to the prime minister's director of communications, Lee Cain, the job advert makes clear.

The shaven-headed Mr Cain is unknown to the public. He previously did shifts as a reporter on the Daily Mirror and The Sun, before working for Mr Johnson when he was foreign secretary.

Downing Street director of communications Lee Cain (right) with Dominic Cummings

Image: Downing Street director of communications Lee Cain (right) with Dominic Cummings

Among journalist colleagues he is remembered for dressing up as the "Mirror chicken" during the 2010 election campaign and taunting David Cameron for refusing to answer questions.

"Lee was actually a great Mirror chicken," one former colleague on the paper recalled fondly. "He attacked the role with real zeal and a great passion."

The new Number 10 spokesperson reporting to Mr Cain will need the same qualities.

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